The canals that link Gothenburg and Stockholm, the North Sea and the Baltic, come alive when turn-of-the-century boats cruise along them, in a river trip unlike any other in Europe
With three cheeky toots on its whistle and a blast from the funnel, we glided out of Gothenburg on board the 90-year-old steamship Wilhelm Tham, destination Stockholm. This four-day trip took us across two seas, one river, eight lakes and 65 locks, and through the middle of rural Sweden.
The sun didn’t set until after midnight and it rose again about 2am. No one wanted to go to bed while the sky was still bright, so after dinner we’d take our coffee up on deck, where an overflowing basket of wild strawberries, cherries and nuts was left for us. We stayed on deck until well after midnight, conversation muted as we enjoyed a bottle of wine, a beer or a coffee, watching the landscapes of green fields, dark velvety forests and neat, colourful villages pass by.
Food, as always in Sweden, was delicious: freshly baked bread, lake fish stuffed with herbs, tender venison and wonderful potatoes. Freshly made biscuits and cakes even accompanied the morning coffees and afternoon teas.
Sweden is not a country one associates with music - apart from the ubiquitous Abba - yet, when I recall scenes from our journey along the canal, I hear music, old-fashioned waltzes played on accordions and poignant melodies played on violins. From the folk group on the quay at Gothenburg and the Kindhom family who serenaded us at the little town of Forsvik, and passed out posies of wild flowers, to my most cherished memory of the old man who, just before 6am on the third morning, serenaded us from the bottom of his garden along the river bank. ‘He is 91 years old,’ said the Captain, ‘and he brings his violin down to the canalside every time a steamer passes. Playing for us is his greatest delight,’ That evening we heard the nightingale sing at Borenshult, and there was magic in the air.
We crept upward and downward through 65 locks and occasionally the steamer had to navigate whole flights of locks - 15 in one place. Many of the passengers took this opportunity to disembark and stroll along the canal bank or borrowed the onboard cycles to go further up the tow-path. With our own hostess/guide on board, organised tours to nearby places of interest was another option.
Sweden’s largest lake, Lake Vänern, was our first experience of a vast expanse of water that looked like the open sea. Looking back at the choppy black waves, it was easy to understand the fear felt by travellers in the 19th century, many of whom had never left their villages before, as they sailed across these waters headed for that Mecca of the 19th century, America.
For our second lake, Viken, at 91 metres above sea level and the highest point on the canal, we steered through narrow, scenic passages where woods crept down to the edge of the banks and water lilies and reeds grew profusely in the calm waters. Easing out onto the lake, we were joined by numerous sailing boats, for these are favourite waters for European sailors.
Along the route, time is allowed for visiting places of interest. Like Vadstena, an idyllic town with enchanting wooden houses lining its narrow streets and a ‘sightseeing train’ to take visitors around, and Berg, where there is a fine view over 11 of the locks, the most impressive on the Göta Canal. And on a beautiful morning, we walked to the ruins of Sweden’s first ever convent, the 12th-century Vreta Kloster, where we admired the gardens and the well preserved church.
Then there was Motala, with its modern museum and collection of motorcycles, radios and tape-recorders from the 30s, 40s and 50s, where a very enthusiastic curator opened up for us after dinner one evening.
Best of all was Birka, founded in the 7th century AD and regarded as Sweden’s first town. Archaeologists have been digging on the island for many years now and a little museum was opened in 1996 to display some of the finds from the site. An archaeologist took us to the top of a hill and enthusiastically introduced us to the life and times of Sweden’s earliest settlers as she pointed out the remains of the compact little town with small houses and huts, slowly being revealed in the digs at the bottom of the hill.
From the ancient site of Birka to modern Stockholm took only two hours, and entering Stockholm from the sea, past the 17th-century home of the Swedish royal family, Drottingholm Castle, was a perfect end to our canal journey. Blonde, blue-eyed mermaids waved to us from rocks before diving into the icy blue water that that reflected the green coppered roofs and the red of the city’s old buildings, looking for all the world like fairytale castles. Stockholm’s symbol, the Tre Kronor, three golden crowns, seemed to float above the roofs and minarets of City Hall, and as our ship moored alongside the quay in the Old Town, we heard the music once again - this time from a group of balalaika musicians from Russia.
The ship didn’t give a farewell toot on its whistle as we disembarked, but the captain and his crew were on the ground to shake hands with the passengers, and to wish us a good forward journey.
Two-day, four-day and six-day cruises on M/S Juno or M/S William Tham from Gothenburg to Stockholm or Stockholm to Gothenburg cost from SK 4175 per person full board (c£380 at current rates of exchange).
Where to stay before and after your cruise
Best Wwestern Hotel Eggers, Gothenburg: a very quiet, central hotel in Gothenburg, facing Central Station and directly opposite the coach terminal for the airport bus. From SK 1500 (c£118 per night).
Hotel Vasa, Gothenburg: a quiet, family-run hotel close to Liseberg Park and all entertainments. Prices from SK 795 (c£72).
Scandic Malmen, Stockholm: very central hotel, within walking distance of all main happenings, cultural attractions and late-night clubbing, and only minutes from Arlanda airport. Prices from SK 1150 (c£104).
Malardrottningen Boat Hotel Stockholm: located on Lake Malaren, this is one of the world’s first luxury yachts and was formerly owned by Barbara Hutton. With only 29 rooms, it is intimate and very different. From only SK 650 per person (c£59).